This week’s d’var Torah is from Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser, Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, and Past National Chaplain, NJCOS.
Parshat Bechukotai (read together with Parshat Behar this Shabbat) imagines a number of dark, unhappy, and frightening fates that, sadly, can be all too real. We read in Leviticus 26:37, “With no one pursuing them, they shall stumble over one another….”
This past week, on the usually cheerful if minor holiday of Lag Ba-Omer, the Jewish world witnessed just such a tragedy. After celebrating the holiday on Mount Meron in northern Israel – and after honoring the memory of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai by visiting his tomb there to mark his yahrzeit on that day – 45 of the many thousands joining in the celebration died in a crushing “stampede” of worshippers leaving the sacred site. Many more were injured. Happy pilgrims to Mount Meron — “with no one pursuing them, stumbled over one another” – with terrible consequences. Among the victims were the very young together with their elders, Yeshiva students, and a number of rabbis.
The tragic loss of life is especially bitter given its timing. The Omer period between Passover and Shavuot is traditionally associated with the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiba’s students in a plague. Lag Ba-Omer (the 33rd day of this period) is celebrated to mark the end of that plague. Lag Ba-Omer represents new life and hope and safety… and the holiday honors students and teachers and scholars of Torah.
On this Shabbat Behar-Bechukotai, we honor the memory of those whom we lost at last week’s Lag Ba-Omer celebration. May their memory be a blessing. We continue to pray for those recovering from their injuries.
Such dark events are difficult for us all to understand and to accept… but they are especially tough for young Scouts who are practiced in the ways of kindness, compassion, empathy, and reverence. It is sad that – on such occasions – young people are confronted with news of pain and loss. In these very sad days, we do well to remember the final message Scouting founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell left for his fellow Scouts:
“I believe that God put us on this jolly world to be happy and enjoy life… Try to leave this world a little better than you found it, and when your time comes to die you can die happy in feeling at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best. ‘Be Prepared’ in this way to live happy and to die happy; stick to your Scout Promise always – even after you have ceased to be a boy – and God help you do it.”
“I believe…” Baden-Powell said. “I believe – Ani Ma’amin” were among the last words sung by the Lag Ba-Omer pilgrims just before that awful accident on Lag Ba-Omer. “Ani Ma’amin: I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even if he takes a long time – still – I believe.” We continue to believe… even in the saddest of times. For, as Parshat Bechukotai assures us (Leviticus 26:12)… “I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you will be My People.”
May we know no further sadness. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser